Whether you deal with anxiety on a regular basis or just feel stressed the eff out sometimes, you probably know there’s power in slowing down and taking a deep breath.
What you might not know is that while focusing on your breath is an excellent way to calm yourself, the cadence in which you breathe may be even more important and lead to greater stress-reducing benefits. In particular, what’s known as the 4-7-8 breathing technique can be a helpful tool for relaxing throughout the day.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique (touted by integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil,) is thought to help reduce nervousness and stress, calm anxiety, and help people drift off to sleep more quickly, according to Krista-Lynn Landolfi, a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and meditation instructor in Los Angeles, California.
“While deep breathing is something that many people don’t actively think about, when consciously guided, it can relieve pain, lower blood pressure, and quiet your mind, allowing ideas and answers to flow freely and easily,” she says.
How does the 4-7-8 breathing technique work?
According to Landolfi, most people are shallow breathers who hold their breath a lot throughout the day, which contributes to stress and tension. Conscious breathing exercises, like the 4-7-8 technique, can help you clear your mind and minimise feelings of worry.
“Deep breathing like the 4-7-8 technique calms the nervous system, helping to break out of the flight-or-flight response triggered by fear while also soothing the body,” says Landolfi. “It places your focus solely on your breath, freeing you from worries, while also calming the mind and relaxing the body.”
How do you do the 4-7-8 breathing technique?
While the 4-7-8 breathing technique is fairly simple once you get the hang of it, there are detailed steps to follow to make sure you’re doing it properly. While this exercise can be done anywhere at any time, it’s best done while sitting or standing with a straight back to allow your lungs space to expand, says Landolfi.
- Start with an audible exhale to open your lungs and release tension you may be holding in your shoulders. If you’re especially tense, you can repeat this step a few times, gently rolling your shoulders and wiggling your hips to help you find a relaxed stance or position.
- With your mouth closed and tongue pressed gently on the roof of your mouth, breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose for a mental count of four. Then hold your breath for a mental count of seven.
- Finally, with your mouth closed and tongue still pressed on the roof of your mouth, audibly exhale (as if you’re blowing out the candles on a birthday cake) as slowly as you can, for a count of eight.
- Repeat this for four full cycles.
If you’re typically a shallow breather, it’s common to feel a bit lightheaded when you start taking deeper, fuller breaths, says Landolfi. This is a sensation that will pass as your body becomes accustomed to a greater flow of oxygen. You can stop to return to your normal breathing pattern if you feel lightheaded, to allow the feeling to pass. Once you feel back to normal, resume the breathing technique — it will still be beneficial even if you don’t get through it perfectly. When first starting out, you might find it easier to practice the exercise while seated.
“It’s important to note that when first beginning the practice, Weil recommends doing just four consecutive cycles at a time for the first month; you can work your way up to eight ‘reps’ after an initial 30 days,” says Landolfi.
You can also practice similar forms of breathing exercises by simply slowing your breathing and counting your inhalations and exhalations or focusing your attention on the feel or sound of your breath. The key with the 4-7-8 technique is that the counting helps maintain your focus, leaving little room for worrisome thoughts to take hold.
How often should I use this technique?
Landolfi encourages people to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique (or simply pause to take a few deep breaths) several times throughout the day.
“While this exercise can quickly, even instantly, calm and relax you, the effects are cumulative,” she says. “You can take these breath breaks while you shower, every time you go to the bathroom, whenever you get into and out of your car, a chair, or your bed, before and after every meal, or simply by setting four daily alarms reminding you to do it.”
Are there apps that can help me with 4-7-8 breathing?
The above steps can be a lot to remember when you’re stressed out in the moment and just want to calm down quickly. Thankfully, there are plenty of apps that can time your breathing for you to make the process even easier. The following are some of Landolfi’s recommendations.
Breathe – 1 Minute Meditation: This app takes you through the 4-7-8 breathing technique and allows you to set up reminders.
3 Minute Mindfulness: This app prompts you to schedule three-minute breath breaks throughout the day, offering many varieties of breathwork to choose from, whether you want to calm your mind or energise your body.
Box Breathe: This app uses visual prompts to help you regulate your breathing. With this app, a box opens with guidelines for how many seconds to breathe in, hold, and exhale, which keeps you focused on your breath, rather than any stressful thoughts that might be running through your head.
Insight Timer: This app offers a wide variety of meditations, from simple chimes that sound to count off seconds to guided meditations that can help you focus on your breath and feel more centered.
Do you have any other breathing techniques for stress management you'd like to share with us? Tell us here.
This article was originally published in Women's Health SA
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